11:01 AM EDT on Monday, March 21, 2011 By Jennifer D. Jordan
Providence Journal Staff Writer
A sure sign of spring arrived Sunday at the Norman Bird Sanctuary, a day that marked the official end of winter and the arrival of the vernal equinox.
It wasn’t so much a glimpse of swooping redwing blackbirds or the echo of a downy woodpecker drumming a hollow tree that heralded the change in seasons.
It was the arrival at 8 a.m. of Charlotte and Mike Perry of Swansea. The couple joined a dozen fellow birders at the 325-acre refuge Sunday for a free bird walk offered year-round, every other week.
The Providence Journal / Kris Craig
“The first sign of migration is the Perrys come back,” joked guide Jay Manning as the group assembled in the morning chill.
“I won’t come out here with six feet of snow on the ground,” said Mike Perry. He and his wife still go out birding in the deep winter, he said, but closer to home.
Like the tree swallows that fly north and nest near the bird sanctuary’s meadows, though, the Perrys always come back.
“It’s amazing what you hear,” Perry said, “when you start paying attention to it.”
Manning, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Management and a sanctuary board member, has led the walks since 1993.
“We’re getting to that time of year when birding is as audio as it is visual,” said Manning. “The resident birds are getting ready for spring, calling to each other and getting their territories set up.”
In a few weeks, herons will start to arrive from the south, followed by many others. May is prime season for Rhode Island birders.
Manning motioned for the group to pause and listen to three birdcalls: a song sparrow cooing “please, please put on the teakettle;” a Carolina wren also chirping “teakettle” but much quicker and louder than the sparrow; and the whistle of a cardinal that sounded like “birdy, birdy, birdy” the faster it whirred.
“That one’s saying, ‘Welcome spring. Now get out of my area,’ ” Manning said.
He imitated the song of the chickadee. “Spring’s here, spring’s here.”
“Just being out in nature, you never know what you are going to see,” said Mike Marchetti of Portsmouth, a Navy retiree who has been accompanying Manning on bird walks for more than a decade.
“You see some beautiful things out here. You get some exercise out of it. And all it takes is a pair of binoculars.”
Years ago, Marchetti met Barry Murphy, a retired Marine, on the Sunday excursions. The peaceful pilgrimage through meadows, woods and marsh has become their shared ritual.
“This is church,” Murphy said.
Robert Weaver has visited the bird sanctuary for most of its six-decade history, starting as a Boy Scout more than 50 years ago.
Unlike the Perrys, Weaver, a retired cook, participates in the Sunday walks year round, even in rain, sleet and snow. Four years ago, he discovered a pair of rare pink-footed geese that attracted birders from as far away as California.
Weaver and Manning, like most birders, keep “life lists” of the birds they have seen. Weaver says his contains more than 500 kinds; Manning reckons he has “about 480” from North America.
Most in the group can rattle off species with ease, verifying their finds by referring to well-thumbed reference-books tucked in their pockets.
“There’s a tufted titmouse!”
They watched a white-breasted nuthatch dart down the trunk of a tree head first, its long, thin beak leading the charge.
The yellow-rumped warbler can switch from eating insects to berries to survive, Manning explained, as they pause to watch one jump through brambles.
Except Manning doesn’t call the bird by its proper name. “They’re lovingly called butter-butt,” he said.
Not everyone is an expert. Kerry Novack and her husband, Chris Vales, have lived in Newport for four years. Sunday was their first visit to the sanctuary.
“We took a trip to New Zealand and went camping and saw so many beautiful birds,” Novack said. “And I realized, I don’t know what’s out in my own backyard. So, it’s just been great to come out here this morning.”
For more information, go to www.normanbirdsanctuary.org and click on “calendar” or call (401) 846-2577. The next free walk is 8 a.m. on April 3.